Monday, October 25, 2010

The Illusionist

I saw Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. I found it so remarkable that I returned to see it again the following night. The review below is an attempt to convey my feelings about the film without revealing too much of the story, as it has yet to be released in North America. There are many aspects of this film that I will eventually discuss in great detail, but that will have to wait until other people have the chance to see it. The film is scheduled to open in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day and I assume it will get a wider release early next year.

Sylvain Chomet's subject is human eccentricity. That was plain in his earlier work, The Old Lady and the Pigeons and The Triplettes of Belleville, though he hadn't found a way to combine his eccentrics with a workable story. The Illusionist, based on a script by the late French comedian and filmmaker Jacques Tati, is Chomet's best film yet, one that combines his eccentrics with a melancholy tale of age and youth.

Tati's script was written sometime in the latter 1950's, and this film has strong echoes of Chaplin's Limelight. Both films concern performers who have lost their audience and who have encounters with younger women. Limelight pairs Chaplin with a depressed ballerina. While his own career deteriorates, he helps to revive hers. In this film, Tatischeff, a stage magician, becomes the protector of Alice, a teenage maid who attaches herself to him to escape her life of drudgery.

At best, Alice is naive; she takes Tatisheff's magic as real. He works hard to fulfill her wishes. However, this puts financial pressure on Tatischeff, whose act is passé, and eventually he can no longer sustain her illusions.

What separates this film from most contemporary animated features is its acknowledgment of failure and its feeling of melancholy. Tatischeff is only one of several performers who are watching the demand for their talents vanish in the age of television and rock and roll. There is a ventriloquist, a clown, some acrobats and an opera singer, all of whom are remarkably individual in their appearance and movements. Chomet gets to indulge himself with them, but in a broader context that ties their oddness to being out of step with audiences. As this film is made with drawings in an age of cgi, I wonder if Chomet wasn't reflecting on his own situation as his animated performers became more desperate.

Live action is full of autumnal films. Limelight, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and John Huston's The Dead are suffused with sadness and a feeling of helplessness. Until now, animation has refused to acknowledge these things. As animation directors age, they don't mature or else the industry doesn't let them. Chomet is not yet 50, but he has directed this film with the wisdom and insight of someone twenty years older.

Some films become touchstones; they remain part of the conversation years after their release. For some part of the animation community, The Illusionist will be a touchstone. While I have enjoyed Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist is my favorite animated feature of the year and I don't expect that will change in the remaining months.

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